Assisi embroidery is a form of counted-thread embroidery based on an ancient Italian tradition where the background is filled with embroidery stitches and the main motifs are left void i.e. unstitched. The name is derived from the Italian town of Assisi where the modern form of the craft originated.
Traditionally, Assisi embroidery was rarely executed in cross-stitch, but most often in long-armed cross-stitch. Examples employing other stitches are also known, such as cross-stitch, Italian cross-stitch and Algerian plait stitch. The colours of thread used were the traditional ones of red, blue, green or gold for the background, and black or brown for the outlines. Traditional motifs were largely heraldic, especially heraldic beasts, and typically featured symmetrically arranged pairs of animals and birds surrounded by ornate filigree borders.
In the oldest pieces, the figures were drawn on the fabric free-hand, surrounded with Holbein stitch and the background was filled as well as possible. For more modern pieces the pattern was constructed carefully on paper, in much the same way as cross-stitch patterns are created. Today Assisi embroidery is nearly always done this way.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, this form of embroidery fell into decline and many of the designs and motifs were lost. It was only at the turn of the 20th century that the practice was revived in the Italian town of Assisi from which this form of embroidery gets its name. In 1902 the 'Laboratorio Ricreativo Festivo Femminile San Francesco di Assisi' was established. The aim of this handicrafts workshop was to revive traditional local handicrafts and provide employment to poor women to supplement their income. This cottage industry flourished and these more modern designs, using the counted thread technique, quickly spread throughout Italy, Europe and further abroad.
Leszner, Eva Maria. Assisi Embroidery, London: Batsford, 1988. ISBN 0-7134-5595-0